MARSEILLES

Extracts and extras from YESTERDAY: A BABY BOOMER’S RITE OF PASSAGE

I impressed myself by finding my way back to the Gare De Lyon station for my overnight trip to Marseille, but once inside I could only stand in a dazed state of confusion bordering on panic. People, platforms, more people, exits, entrances, signs in French … I had no idea where my train might be hiding and was terrified I’d board the wrong one and end up who knows where! I tried asking a few people for directions, but their response was the usual Parisienne shrug.

Then, my knight in shining armour materialised. 

Not only did Jean Louis speak a little English, he was on leave from the air force and on his way home to Marseilles. He took my suitcase, accompanied me to the train and located my compartment.

As we pulled out of Paris I stretched out on my couchette – I would have called a bunk bed, but couchette certainly sounded more exotic – content in the knowledge I was indeed heading to Marseille and not back to London with a side trip to Turkey.

Suddenly, the other 5 people in the compartment all started addressing me in French. I had no clue what they were saying, so responded with the Parisienne shrug and “no francaise. Parle anglaise? ” That really set them off. They started yelling and waving their arms about in a most alarming manner. Suspecting my life might be in danger, I made a hasty exit and took off down the narrow corridor hoping to find Jean Louis. Fortunately, he responded to my call and once again came to my rescue. We arrived back in my compartment and a 6 way conversation revealed that my crime, no doubt punishable by guillotine, had been to occupy the wrong couchette! All was solved and once again, peace reigned supreme on a night train rattling through France.

Well, all was quiet at least until the people in my compartment got hungry at about 2am. Then they all started talking, singing and sharing food and wine around. Of course (and perhaps fortunately, based on the smell) none was offered to the ignorant couchette-stealing foreigner!

It was still pitch dark when we came to a ear-piercing, metal grinding halt in Marseilles at 5.15 am. I staggered sleepily down the steep steps onto the platform and wondered how I would fill in the time until daybreak, but my luck was in. Jean-Louis caught up with me and said (I think) that it was not safe for a girl to walk around Marseilles in the dark. He helped me store my suitcase in a station locker, explained to me how to retrieve it, then escorted me to a cafe, bought coffee and pastries and stayed with me until it grew light.

That was to be the first of many kind gestures I would encounter from strangers during the months I spent on the continent. We left the cafe at daybreak and exchanged a kiss on each cheek, then Jean Louis and I said goodbye and good luck on a deserted wind-swept street at around 7.am.

We were never to cross paths again, but I’ll never forget his kindness.

It was early March. I shivered in the icy wind coming off the Mediterranean. Then I reminded myself where I was! This was the south of France! I’d seen the Pacific and the Atlantic, and now, I was about to see the Mediterranean. I remembered the words of an old song …

I’ve seen the Pacific and the Atlantic

and the Pacific isn’t terrific

and the Atlantic isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Well, I loved ’em all!

I had only allocated a half a day in Marseilles and wondered if it was enough, but after Jean Louis went on his way, I wandered around for a few hours and thought I’d seen it all. My train wasn’t due to leave until 11am, so at around 9o’clock I decided to visit the imposing Notre Dame de la Garde monastery that overlooked the city.

I asked a man how to get to it— or rather, I shrugged and pointed to a bus and said “Notre-Dame?” and he wrote #59 on a piece of paper. I could only hope we understood each other.  I jumped on a number 59 bus and when I disembarked, I found myself in a whole other world … a town built entirely on the side of the cliff.

It looked as though the 20th century had never touched it. Old stone houses crowded together on both sides of narrow winding streets. It was so steep that each house was above instead of behind the other. I had to climb about 50 cobble-stone steps between each street.

The shops had craftsmen working on their wares in shopfront windows—cobblers making shoes, tailors sewing suits, glass blowers, potters, milliners, etc.

The sky was a glorious vivid blue. and The air was so clear I could see right over Marseille, across an expanse of the Mediterranean and as far as the mountains of northern Italy! Breathtaking!

Time stood still as I wandered around in awe of this ‘Brigadoon’ type township. I was so entranced, I forgot my original intention had been to visit the monastery. Suddenly I realised it was time to head back to the station.

I could have kicked myself for not heading up there earlier. Perhaps … another time.

I collected my suitcase, unaided. I boarded the correct train – again, totally unaided. I settled into a window seat and silently congratulated myself. Yes, I was starting to get good at this!

Next stop, just 3 hours away, was the famous French Riviera! Yippee! What a life!

franceFrench RivieraMarseilles